“If you ask who is going to win the governor’s race in 2022, my answer is going to be the Republican,” Dan Hopkins, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political behavior, told me. “But events like this can inject uncertainty.”
For more than a century, Texas’s power grid has been separate from the rest of the country’s, which allows it to avoid most federal oversight. Although this so-called energy independence has been a point of pride for many state Republicans, it’s also why the grid failed: Leaders neglected to fully prepare the grid for a bad storm. When Texans cranked up their heaters last week, ice-covered power plants couldn’t meet their demand, natural-gas wells and wind turbines similarly became unusable, and grid managers had no way to pull in additional electricity from beyond the state’s borders. The result was days-long blackouts across Texas.*
State Democrats clearly view this moment as a reckoning—and as an opportunity. They’re trying to convince Texans that the disaster was the inevitable outcome of decades-long Republican control, and they’re already planning to mobilize voters on the issue ahead of the midterm elections.
Voters’ political memories are usually very short: Although it will be difficult for Texans to forget the 96 hours they spent shivering in their homes, time heals most wounds, and especially political ones. The next elections are in November 2022—more than a year away. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who drew public ridicule after he jetted off to Mexico when the blackouts hit, isn’t up for reelection until 2024. Two Novembers from now, the odds will be against Democrats in another way too: Midterm elections in a country with a sitting Democratic president will probably mobilize more conservative voters than liberal ones.
Read: Ted Cruz is no hypocrite. He’s worse.
But the Texas energy emergency isn’t like other crises. In most cases, natural disasters such as a major winter storm “offer an opportunity for politicians to show what they’ve got,” says Andrew Reeves, one of the authors of a 2011 study assessing how election outcomes are impacted by weather events. An incumbent governor, for example, might temporarily lose his standing with his constituents just by the simple fact of a tornado damaging miles of property in his state. But that disapproval can turn into support if voters see the governor making an effort to respond with care and competence.
In Texas, however, a series of political decisions, not a random act of nature, catalyzed the catastrophe. “Voters are more justified in linking up this phenomenon that happened in the natural world to the governor and other elected officials,” Reeves, a political-science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. In other words, incumbent Republicans in Texas, even if they’re active in recovery efforts, might not have the same level of protection as the politicians Reeves studied.
That vulnerability is where the Democratic Party comes in. One of the biggest challenges Texas Democrats face is recruiting enough qualified candidates to compete for major offices, Joshua Blank, the research director at the Texas Politics Project, a research and polling program housed at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. But “an event like this makes it more likely that high-quality Democratic candidates who may have been more reticent to run in an off-year [election] might take the plunge,” he said. Campaign filing deadlines for the midterms are coming up this year, and an increase in Democratic candidates could be the first sign of the political ramifications of this crisis.